(born Augustus Owsley Stanley IIII
, January 19
) also known as The Bear
, was an underground LSD
chemist, the first to produce large quantities of pure LSD. His total production is estimated at around half a kilogram of LSD, or roughly 5 million 100-microgram "trips" of normal potency, although accounts vary widely. The widespread and low-cost (often given away free) availability of high-quality Owsley LSD in the San Francisco area in the mid-1960s may well have been indispensable for the emergence of the hippie
movement during the Summer of Love
in the Haight-Ashbury
area, which one historian of that movement, Charles Perry, has described as "one big LSD party" and which has had continuing influence to this day in American society in terms of increasing tolerance for alternative perspectives and lifestyles. Owsley was also an accomplished sound engineer
, and the longtime soundman for seminal psychedelic rock
band the Grateful Dead
; the band's well-known "dancing bear" icon derives from his nickname. He designed the first high-fidelity sound systems for rock music, culminating in the massive "Wall of Sound
" electrical amplification system used by the Grateful Dead in their live shows, at the time a highly innovative feat of engineering, and was involved with the founding of high-end musical instrument maker Alembic Inc
and the pre-eminent concert sound equipment manufacturer Meyer Sound
. The combination of his notoriety in the psychedelic scene and his reclusive tendencies (in part cultivated to confuse the authorities ---he avoided being photographed and refused to be interviewed for many years) led to the perpetuation of many inaccurate tales invoking him, and it should be noted that most published materials about him contain some inaccuracies.
Owsley was the scion of a political family from Kentucky. His father was a government attorney, and his namesake and grandfather, Augustus O. Stanley, was a member of the United States Senate after serving as Governor of Kentucky. Another ancestor, William Owsley, also served as Governor of Kentucky in the mid 1800s. Exploration of current online genealogy sites shows that the Owsley family line stretches back through Colonial America to landed aristocracy in England, and is related to many of the royal families of Europe; indeed, Owsley appears to be a direct descendant of Charlemagne.
When Owsley was twenty-one, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force
in 1956 and served for eighteen months before being discharged in 1958. Later, inspired by a 1958 performance of the Bolshoi Ballet
, he began studying ballet in Los Angeles, supporting himself for a time as a professional dancer
In 1963, he enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley
where he became involved in the psychoactive
drug scene. He dropped out after a semester, took a technical job at KGO-TV, and began producing LSD in a small lab located in the bathroom of a house near campus. His makeshift laboratory was raided by police on February 21
. He beat the charges and successfully sued for the return of his equipment. The police were looking for methamphetamine
, but found only LSD — which wasn't illegal at the time.
Owsley moved to Los Angeles to pursue the production of LSD. He used his Berkeley lab proceeds to buy 800 grams of lysergic acid monohydrate, the basis for LSD. His first shipment arrived on March 30, 1965. He produced 300,000 capsules (270 micrograms each) of LSD by May 1965 and then returned to the Bay Area.
In September 1965, Owsley became the primary LSD supplier to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters; by this point Sandoz LSD was hard to come by and "Owsley Acid" had become the new standard. He was featured (most prominently his freak-out at the Muir Beach Acid Test in November 1965) in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a book detailing the history of Kesey and the Merry Pranksters by Tom Wolfe. Owsley attended the Watts Acid Test on February 12, 1966 with his new apprentice Tim Scully and provided the LSD.
Involvement with the Grateful Dead
Owsley met the members of the Grateful Dead in 1966 and began working with them as their first soundman (and helping to finance them). Along with his close friend Bob Thomas, he designed the Lightning Bolt Skull Logo,
often referred to by fans as "Steal Your Face" or SYF (after the name of the 1976 Grateful Dead album
featuring only the lightning bolt skull on the cover, although the symbol predates the namesake album by eight years). The 13-point lightning bolt was derived from a stencil Owsley created to spray-paint on the Grateful Dead's equipment boxes ---he wanted an easily identifiable mark to help the crew find the Dead's equipment in the jumble of multiple bands' identical black equipment boxes at festivals. The lightning bolt design came to him while driving one night in a thunderstorm. Owsley suggested to Bob Thomas that the words "Grateful Dead" might be drawn beneath the red white and blue circled bolt in such a way that it looked like a skull; Bob went off and returned, having discarded the hidden word concept, with the now familiar Grateful Dead icon. The lightning-adorned skull logo actually made its first appearance on the 1973 release, "History of the Grateful Dead, Volume 1: Bear's Choice," an album put together by Owsley from recordings he had made in 1970 as his tribute to his dear friend, the recently deceased Grateful Dead co-founder Ron "Pigpen" McKernan
. The iconic "Dancing Bears" also first appeared on the reverse cover of this album, painted by Bob Thomas as an inside reference to Owsley; dubbed "Bear" as a young teen when he sprouted body hair before the rest of his friends, he'd studied ballet in his early 20's and displayed a distinctive style of dancing while tripping on LSD at shows--- becoming what his friends called 'The Dancing Bear.'
During his time as the soundman for the Grateful Dead, he started what became a long-term practice of recording the band while they rehearsed and performed. His initial motivation for creating what he dubs his "sonic journal" was to improve his ability to mix the sound, but the fortuitous result was an extensive trove of recordings of the Grateful Dead during what many consider their heyday. Focusing on quality and clarity of sound, he favored simplicity in his miking, and his tapes are widely touted as being unrivaled live recordings. He made numerous live recordings of the Dead and other leading 1960's and 70's artists appearing in San Francisco, including Jefferson Airplane, Old and In The Way, Janis Joplin, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Taj Mahal, Santana, Miles Davis, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, Blue Cheer, a band who took their name from the nickname of Owsley's acid, and many others. While many Owsley recordings have been released, many, many more remain unpublished at this time.
Richmond LSD lab
Owsley and Scully built electronic equipment for the Grateful Dead until late spring 1966. At this point Owsley rented a house in Point Richmond, California
, and Owsley, Scully, and Melissa Cargill (Owsley's girlfriend who was a skilled chemist introduced to Owsley by a former girlfriend, Susan Cowper) set up a lab in the basement. Owsley developed a method of LSD synthesis which left the LSD 99.9 percent free of impurities. The Point Richmond lab turned out over 300,000 tablets (270 micrograms each) of LSD they dubbed "White Lightning." LSD became illegal in California on October 6
, and Scully wanted to set up a new lab in Denver, Colorado.
Scully set up the new lab in the basement of a house across the street from the Denver zoo in early 1967. Scully made the LSD in the Denver lab while Owsley tableted the product in Orinda, California. Owsley and Scully also produced a new psychedelic they called STP.
STP was distributed in the summer of 1967 in 20mg tablets and quickly acquired a bad reputation. Owsley and Scully made trial batches of 10mg tablets and then STP mixed with LSD in a few hundred yellow tablets but soon ceased production of STP. Owsley and Scully produced about 196 grams of LSD in 1967, but 96 grams of this was confiscated by the authorities.
In late 1967 Owsley's Orinda lab was raided by police; he was found in possession of 350,000 doses of LSD and 1,500 doses of STP. His defense was that the illegal substances were for personal use, but he was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison. A newspaper headline mis-identifying Owsley as an "LSD Millionaire" following his arrest inspired the Grateful Dead song "Alice D. Millionaire". The same year, Owsley officially shortened his name to "Owsley Stanley".
After he was released from prison, Owsley (1999 pic) went on to do more sound work for the Grateful Dead. Later, he would work as a broadcast television engineer
A naturalized Australian citizen since 1996, Owsley and his wife Sheilah live off the grid in the bush of Far Northern Tropical Queensland
where he creates sculpture, much of it wearable art, though he himself does not refer to it as jewelry. He has 2 sons and 2 daughters by 4 different women; Peter and Nina preceded the 1960s, while Starfinder and Redbird followed them.
Diet and health
Owsley believes that the natural human diet is a totally carnivorous one, thus making it a no-carbohydrate diet
, and that all vegetables are toxic.. He claims to have eaten almost nothing but meat
since 1959 and that he believes his body has not aged as much as the bodies of those who eat a more "normal" diet. He is convinced that insulin
, released by the pancreas
are ingested, is the cause of much damage to human tissue and that diabetes mellitus
is caused by the ingestion of carbohydrates.
Owsley received radiation therapy in 2004 for throat cancer (a squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil) which he first attributed to passive exposure to cigarette smoke at concerts, but which he later discovered was almost certainly caused by the infection of his tonsil with HPV. He credits his low carb diet with starving the tumor of glucose ---slowing its growth and preventing its spread enough that it could be successfully treated despite its advanced state at diagnosis.
In 1966, the Grateful Dead sometimes performed a song titled "Alice D. Millionaire", which is a reference to the newspaper headline of when Stanley was arrested. The headline read "LSD Millionaire Busted".
The Jimi Hendrix cover version of the Beatles song "Day Tripper", from a 1967 BBC session first released on CD in 1987, features Jimi Hendrix clearly shouting out, "Oh Owsley, can you hear me now?" during the climactic guitar solo.
The title of the Jefferson Airplane song "Bear Melt", from their 1968 live album Bless Its Pointed Little Head, is a reference to Stanley's nickname "Bear". Paul Kantner also refers to Stanley by name on the album. The Jefferson Airplane song "Mexico", which was released as a single in 1970, opens with the lyric, "Owsley and Charlie, twins of the trade, come to the poet's room."
The Frank Zappa song "Who Needs the Peace Corps?", from the Mothers of Invention' 1968 album We're Only in It for the Money, satirized the hippie scene and features the opening verse:
- What's there to live for?
- Who needs the peace corps?
- Think I'll just DROP OUT
- I'll go to Frisco
- Buy a wig & sleep
- On Owsley's floor
The Steely Dan song "Kid Charlemagne" from the 1976 album The Royal Scam was inspired by Stanley:
While the music played you worked by candlelight
Those San Francisco nights
You were the best in town
Just by chance you crossed the diamond with the pearl
You turned it on the world
That's when you turned the world around
Did you feel like Jesus
Did you realize
That you were a champion in their eyes
On the hill the stuff was laced with kerosene
But yours was kitchen clean
Everyone stopped to stare at your technicolor motor home
Every A-Frame had your number on the wall
You must have had it all
You'd go to L.A. on a dare
And you'd go it alone
Could you live forever
Could you see the day
Could you feel your whole world fall apart and fade away
In 1990, a UK psychedelic Ska Punk band named themselves AOS3 after Owsley's initials, culled from a chapter of the book "The Brotherhood Of Eternal Love". They used an Image of Owsley as a T-shirt graphic, and named their first tape release simply "Owsley".
In 1996, Peter Kember's post-Spacemen 3 band Spectrum released the "Songs for Owsley" EP. The song "Owsley" is an appropriately tripped-out melange of electronic mayhem and highly processed vocals.
Glasgow psychedelic pop group The Owsley Sunshine, take their name from a brand of LSD produced by Stanley.
Australian band The Masters Apprentices released a song called "Our Friend Owsley Stanley III" in the late 60s.
- Martin A Lee, Bruce Shlain (March 1, 1986). Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond, Grove Press. ISBN 0-8021-3062-3
- John Bassett McCleary (February 1, 2004). The Hippie Dictionary: A Cultural Encyclopedia of the 1960s and 1970s pp. 495, Ten Speed Press. ISBN 1-58008-547-4
- Tom Wolfe (August 1968). The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.